To understand the meaning of the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony and its symbolism it is necessary to travel back to ancient Greece and the site of the original Olympics. The first Olympic Games were held in 776BC at a time when wars between Greece's cities were commonplace. The Games were held to honor Zeus and for their duration a sacred truce was called. At the commencement of the games a priestess would light a torch with the sun's rays which was then used to ignite a cauldron upon Hera's altar. The flame in the cauldron would burn throughout the games as a sign of purity, reason and peace.
Today the flame is lit as it was in ancient Greece. An actress dressed as a priestess uses a mirror to direct the suns rays to ignite a torch. This is undertaken at the original site of Hera's temple in Greece. The flame is carried in a fire pot to an altar in the ancient Olympic stadium where it is used to light the first runner's torch. Many ancient Greek rituals included torch relays however interestingly the Olympic Games did not. The modern torch relay culminates in the lighting of the cauldron at the site of the Olympic stadium where it is raised high above the heads of the athletes and spectators and will burn for the duration of the games.
At its base the torch lighting ceremony links the modern Games with those of ancient Greece conveying a sense of continuity and an air of respectability and authority. The fact that there was a break of more than two thousand years between the ancient Games and the modern Olympiad has no bearing on this. The flame today should also represent a truce between the nations of the world and a similar commitment to purity, reason and peace. Unfortunately in modern times we have found ourselves unable to meet these standards.
Drug cheats have for decades ignored the commitment to purity represented by the flame and as a result athletes are now required to take an oath which includes the words, "committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs". Likewise the flame alone is not enough to convince governments to participate in a universal truce. Almost every country has at one time boycotted the Games for political purposes.
It is a pity that the original symbolism of the flame has disappeared in the realities of the modern world. Still all is not lost, new traditions replace old, and we see doves being released after the cauldron is lit to symbolize peace. Perhaps our best hope is represented by a tradition started by the athletes themselves. They no longer stand separated by national boundaries during the closing ceremony but rather mingle one with another as citizens of the world. It is possible that these new traditions will bring back the true meaning of the original flame to our modern day Olympics.